Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998. He was a very great and idiosyncratic poet—something in me wants to say a peerless poet—and, it is reported, a perennial Nobel bridesmaid. It was ironic—and no doubt wounding—that during the period of his expectations, in 1980 and 1996, two other Poles of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, were chosen by the Academy and decorated by Carl Gustav.
I have been waiting for this book from the time of Herbert's death, if not longer. Frankly, in view of some bruited complications (related below), I thought it would take rather longer than it did, and its eventual coming caught me by surprise—as perhaps things do when you wait for them hard. While waiting, I kept my hand in by buying up spare copies of his individual volumes, Report from a Besieged City (1985), Mr Cogito (1993), both Selected Poems (the one from 1968, and, confusingly, a completely different book from 1977), and others; if nothing else, it was handy practical instruction in the ways of the price-demand curve. I have the German translations and read them. I can't read Polish; but I have Herbert wherever I go. As I said in these pages a year or two back, he is the first poet I ever read. Probably he is as near to sacred to me as anything in or out of poetry is.
And now I have a short deadline, a long lead time, and the prospect of a difficult and unpleasant piece to write. In front of me is an uncorrected bound proof—rather unnavigable without an index of titles and first lines, and no doubt subject to all sorts of further alterations and corrections—of a book that I wasn't expecting at all. Herbert has a new translator, someone I have never heard of. Even that drafty, echoey thing the Internet (our very own updated version of Ovid's cave of rumor) has barely heard of Alissa Valles. This, by the way, is to register my surprise, not some snobbish impulse; Herbert, after all, is surely a sought-after commodity, somewhere near the pinnacle both of Polish poetry and the twentieth century; anyone taking him on should probably come with some sort of track record, not least for their own peace of mind—and even then of course it would be no guarantee of a successful outcome. It's pretty much the last thing I would press upon a young poet looking for a start in life or career, or a middle-aged one looking to diversify. I must now enter certain caveats. As I say, I can't ("can't" seems more honest, more regretful than "don't") read Polish. My information from the great publishing centers of London and New York is vague and unattributable and thirdhand. It's not a nice thing to bash a young—or an old, or a middle-aged—translator, least of all when one is unable to read the originals. But it remains the case that my strongest feeling about this book is a sort of helpless and bewildered regret.
Practically synonymous with Herbert in the English-speaking world are—or were?—his English translators, John and Bogdana Carpenter. Over more than twenty years and six books—all but the very first Selected Poems, which was done in 1968 by Milosz (in the days when he still permitted himself to translate his sometime friend, sometime enemy, and sometime fellow-Pole) and a Canadian diplomat, Peter Dale Scott—they were responsible for him in English. The noise that we think of as "Herbert" was made by them. Neither of them is known for anything else; he signs as poet and essayist, though I don't know his poems and essays; she, Polish by birth, is chair of the Slavic department at the University of Michigan. A Collected Poems done by them would have been the logical culmination of their labors, and was something they would have loved, as I understand it, to bring about. Then what? A desire—reasonable? unreasonable?—on the part of the Carpenters to be credited as "editors" of such a book; a falling out with Herbert's widow, Katarzyna, and his American publisher of forty years' standing (from the very outset), Daniel Halpern; the appearance on the scene of an agent, Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie; and the instruction—as one instructs solicitors or builders—of a new translator, Alissa Valles. From the point of view of the Carpenters, I would have thought, an absolute catastrophe; from the point of view of Herbert's English readership, little less than that. And all, I believe, for non-literary reasons.
Such things do happen from time to time, I suppose, but rarely at such a high level, rarely with so much at stake. And then there are ways of managing them, so that least harm is done. This is not the case here. Obviously, the Carpenters are a hard act to follow. Readers bond with translations in an unexpectedly primary way. "New translation" is never the infallible trump that publishers sometimes wish (do they ever believe it?) when they are driven to play it. Old translations hang around, even when they are notionally superseded or replaced, even when they have been discredited, which again is manifestly not the case here. Constance Garnett's Tolstoy, Scott-Moncrieff's Proust, Edwin and Willa Muir's Kafka, H.T. Lowe-Porter's Thomas Mann—all have their adherents. Notable instances in poetry would include the Rilke of J.B. Leishman or C.F. MacIntyre, and the Cavafy of Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherard. As the song has it, the first cut is the deepest. It is almost unknown for a reader to change allegiance, even to a superior product, and again that is not the case here. Historic translations—like the Carpenters'—acquire their own momentum, their own specific virtue. It is an argument that, ironically, finds acceptance in the context of this Collected Poems, which includes all seventy-nine of the Milosz/Dale Scott translations. (So much for the claim, on the back cover of my proof, that "this outstanding new translation by Alissa Valles brings a uniformity of voice to Zbigniew Herbert's entire poetic output"—which might actually have been something worth striving for, though I would have called it something other than "uniformity of voice," which sounds unhappily monotonous.) In her four-page translator's note, Valles is put to the necessity of welcoming the Milosz/Dale Scott versions into her book, and even, a little humiliatingly, touting for them: "These fine translations were Herbert's first extensive introduction to the English-speaking world. They have been retained here..." Those of the Carpenters, though, have not, and it seems to me that readers of their work over the past thirty years—and arguably also new readers, now denied the chance to acquaint themselves with it—are owed some sort of explanation. None is offered. There is silence—the airbrush.
A frank admission of what happened—if, indeed, something has "happened"—the voicing of some proper gratitude to the Carpenters for their work, some regret for the past and modest trepidation for the future, a little of what used to be called glasnost, would have helped. Even some public relations claptrap along the lines of "personal and musical differences" would not have gone amiss. Instead, the Carpenters go by default. Adam Zagajewski, in his short introduction, doesn't mention them—well, perhaps it would have seemed strange if he had. Alissa Valles does mention them:
I owe a considerable debt to previous translators of Herbert, notably to John and Bogdana Carpenter—who not only acted as Herbert's translators over many years but contributed much to his reception and recognition in the English-speaking world—but also to all those who produced versions of individual poems for anthologies: Stanis≈Çaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, Adam Czerniawski, and Robert Mezey, who included a translation of the poem "Sequoia" done in collaboration with Jacek Niecko in a recent Library of America Poems of the American West."
I quote the whole sentence because it is both an outrage and a disaster. The Oscar-style diminuendo or rallentando listing is an indignity; and as for "acted as"—are we to understand that the Carpenters were pretending, that they weren't really his translators, or that their engagement was temporary, a stop-gap?! Stuffing the translators of hundreds of poems over decades into one sentence with chancers who contributed a poem or two to an anthology here or there is simply hideous. God knows I can understand the translator's wish to appear invisible in such circumstances (I sometimes think there is no good news about translation, ever), but it is precisely here, where there is another version, that invisibility is not an option. The publisher should have stepped forward at this point. And from Valles—who covers two of her four pages arguing the toss over the way to translate Marsyas's cry (should it be "A" or "Aaa"?)—I should have liked something on the actual pleasures and difficulties of translating Herbert, on how she came to get the job (were applications invited, did she offer samples, or was it an inside job, any port in a storm?), something a little honest and substantial on the hows and whats and wherefores of the whole enterprise.
Now. To brass tacks, to onions, to sheep, whatever. Herbert has always written poems with exiguous punctuation or (for the most part) none at all. He uses line breaks, spaces, indentation, dashes, and the occasional capitalization to mark sense and direct the reader. Given that he often wrote poems of some length—many of his greatest poems are two or three pages long—this made the experience of reading him unlike reading any other poet. There was a novelty, a surprise, an unpredictability, an ongoing untangling as one read. Every reading was a first reading. One could never remember what went with what. The poem remade itself—squeezed itself out as of a tube—before one's very eyes. It is like reading something still wet, not set, not combed, not furnished and furbished with signs, explanations, directives. Sense wasn't handed down in a predetermined, apodictic way, but seemed to make itself as one blundered along. Authority is not assumed, but accrues. (There is something in Sartre, I seem to remember, about the quality of this uncharted, open-ended type of writing; one tends to associate it with the damaged and freshly dangerous condition of the world after WWII; certainly such a connection existed in the minds of Herbert and of other Polish poets of his generation, veterans, many of them, of the Polish Underground.) Herbert's late poem, "The Book"—though ostensibly on the work of a friend—describes the effect nicely:
This book is a gentle reminder it does not permit me
to run too rapidly in the rhythm of a coursing phrase
it bids me return to the beginning forever begin again
The corollary of this absence of punctuation—and hence, if you like, a second component of an absolutely original style—is an unusually powerful, certain, unambiguous vestigial syntax. This holds the reader in place, points him in the desired direction, reveals contrast, reveals continuity, reveals consequence, makes irony possible. (Herbert studied philosophy and law: he is a logician in a way most writers—alarmingly, one begins to think after a while—aren't, Kafka the most obvious exception.) Without this very firm syntax, this series of pushes and prods, the reader—much more in translation—would be quite at sea; it would be like reading soup. A very basic testimony to Herbert's greatness is the simple fact that one never had this sensation of floundering while reading him. His always struck me as being probably a very demanding style to write—so much for playing tennis without a net—but (and I'm sorry about the backhanded compliment) until I saw Alissa Valles's versions I had no true understanding of the absolute mastery displayed by the Carpenters' handling of it in English, where it is always taut, always sprung, never gassy, foggy, or cloudy.
Two further dimensions: the first, let's call it voice, is Herbert's hectic, surprising, fervent, dry, whispering, breathless speech, whether in propria persona or as an alter ego or body (or rather mental!) double called Mr Cogito, or again (a particular avocation of this poet's) bodied forth in some hostile, monstrous, tyrannical figure—Claudius, Damastes, Fortinbras—the words sometimes spinning their gears in formidable lists, sometimes impelling grave contents with a musing, methodical disbelief. And the second is diction or register, which I know will sound starchy and unattractive, but is really anything but: Herbert's is dignified, detached, possessed of a noble stiffness, at once quiet and dramatic, jetting from the highly particular to the hugely general, from the antique to the current. And it all sounds like this:
Now that we're alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than
a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenseless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight's feet in soft slippers
—From Elegy of Fortinbras
Lightheartedly she disclosed the secrets of her
heart and alcove
in a censurable book with the title "My Life"
Since then we know exactly how the actor Beregy
revealed to her the world of the senses how madly
was Gordon Craig Konstantin Stanislavski
hordes of musicians nabobs writers
while Paris Singer threw everything
he had at her feet—an empire
of never-failing sewing machines et cetera
—From Isadora Duncan
with the inexorable
passing of years
his count of friends
they went off
one by one
some paled like wafers
lost earthly dimensions
to the sky
—From Mr Cogito on a Set Topic:
The poems are in chronological sequence (from the sixties, eighties, and nineties), and the translations are, respectively, by Dale Scott and Milosz, by the Carpenters, and by Alissa Valles. The passages are from poems I admire, and translations I regard as successful; my entire focus has been on Herbert; I haven't wanted to make anyone look bad.
But now—invidious though it be—I must quote comparatively, to make it clear how much the old translations are to be preferred to the new. In a generally and increasingly monolingual culture, the importance of translation is little discussed and less understood. "What does it matter—we still have the author," runs one argument. Actually, "we" don't—that's the whole problem. Another would have it: "Well, another one can't hurt—the more the merrier—we can triangulate them, or something." Alissa Valles herself writes: "Great poets deserve many translators." I don't agree, except over very long periods of time. They deserve—or rather should count themselves blessed to have—one good one, or, preferably yet, a great one. Numbers, variants, alternatives, while seeming to appease Choice—the great false god of our consumer age—actually only produce clutter, distraction, waste. Are two Rilkes better than one? Are seven better than two? I don't think so, not least when "choice" in this context is bound to be such an uninformed, haphazard operation. The argument for abundance is in fact an argument for over-supply. It is too anxious, too sentimental, and too pleased with itself to understand that even the perfect operating of choice is predicated on an endless round of rejection, elimination, incineration. There's no getting around elitism, but this bastardization of it (the idea of choice) is the version for inflationary times, for self-publishers, and for those who can't bear to be told the bad news.
Still, it remains the case that some poets are more spacious, more accommodating than others. Herbert, I would have thought, is one of the least. A Herbert poem, with its unpunctuated layout, its rigid syntax, its careful collisions of diction, is like a tiptoeing through snow. It's never going to be a mass event, like the Boston Marathon. There actually isn't room for different competing versions. I have now read hundreds of pages of Alissa Valles's translations against the German, and against the Carpenters', and (if I am being generous) perhaps one time in twenty hers are better, six or eight about the same, and half the time they are worse. (For reasons to do with the infinitely ramifying nature of language, these kinds of comparisons very rarely produce shutouts; this result strikes me as being unusually conclusive.) From the very beginning, I don't think anyone has "got" Herbert in English the way John and Bogdana Carpenter have. In their introduction to their first engagement with Herbert, that second Selected Poems of 1977, they wrote:
One of the major principles of translation of these poems has been to interpret Herbert's meanings as thoroughly as possible. This is different from literalness; the translators have tried to recast Herbert's poems in English, using all the resources at their disposal.
For years I didn't believe them. I thought it was the usual translators' blarney. Now I do. They go on:
At the same time they have tried to resist any tendency to be reductive, to round off the texture or structure of a poem, or to adapt it to a particular audience, idiom, or expectation. This has meant the creation of a new speaking voice, a voice that can be heard, in English.
They have done splendidly just that, using mostly tiny means of vast reach—pronouns, particles, tenses, word order, forms of the genitive (whether apostrophe or "of"), even in their deployment of definite and indefinite articles (Polish has none). It goes a long way to explaining why Herbert in English is so bracing, so agile, so fresh, so delightful.
I have so many examples—literally hundreds—that it's a problem to know where to begin. (I sense, and perhaps you do too, that I've tried to put off the moment.) What about "Mr Cogito Reflects on Suffering"? Valles ends (the object is suffering):
joke around with it
as with a sick child
cajoling in the end
with silly tricks
The first two lines are mutually incompatible, and indeed both her verbs are excessive to the point of crude; using three "with" constructions is poor; and a characteristically glamorous or poeticizing diction gets in the way of what is being said. The Carpenters have:
like a sick child
forcing at last
with silly tricks
What about this description in the lovely poem, "Biology Teacher":
He towered over me
his long legs spread
and I saw
a gold chain
an ash-colored vest
and a scrawny neck
with a dead bow-tie
Again, the word-choice is flashy—towered, ash-colored, scrawny—but still more destructive is the unthinking word order. The Carpenters:
he stood high above me
on long spread legs
the little gold chain
the ash-grey frock coat
and the thin neck
on which was pinned
a dead necktie
The punchline is properly left to the end, not dispatched prematurely. (Even their dispensing with an "and" in the middle—just "I saw"—seems inspired, and typical of their thoughtful economy.)
What about a difficult, bare passage in "Mr Cogito and the Imagination"? Valles has:
a bird is a bird
a knife a knife
death is death
a flat horizon
a straight line
Here the Carpenters expand things gently, but decisively:
that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth
Their version is so much more resolute, less perfunctory (Valles sounds—"earth's gravity"—simply bored).
Here is the prose poem, "Mother," one of very few intimate or familial poems Herbert permitted himself. Valles:
He fell from her lap like a ball of yarn. He unwound himself in a hurry and beat it into the distance. She held onto the beginning of life. She wound it on a finger hospitable as a ring; she wished to shelter it. He rolled down steep slopes, sometimes labored up mountains. He came back all tangled up and didn't say a word. He will never return to the sweet throne of her lap.Her outspread arms glow in the dark like an old town.
"Beat it" is a disaster, a sudden touch of Bukowski. The fourth sentence is blighted by the sloppy agreement—is a finger like a ring? Is a ring hospitable? And then do you shelter something by making it a ring? I would have thought a ring is rather exposed. The glow at the end—is it sodium?—is also distinctly unhappy. The poem looks routine, messy, abrupt, unaffecting, rather sentimental. The Carpenters render it (I don't know if it's prose or verse, and frankly I couldn't care a hang):
He fell from her knees like a ball of yarn.
He unwound in a hurry and ran blindly away.
She held the beginning of life. She would wind it
on her finger like a ring, she wanted to preserve him.
He was rolling down steep slopes, sometimes
he was climbing up. He would come back tangled, and
Never will he return to the sweet throne of her knees.
The stretched-out hands are alight in the darkness
like an old town.
"Knees" is masterly, at beginning and end. "Preserve him" is endlessly more appropriate and feeling than "shelter it." The strange-sounding imperfect tense is, I think, a good idea for time in the wilderness. The little inversion in line seven could make you cry. The awful twanging of the Valles version is gone. The poem is suddenly bigger, gentler, softer.
One more example, from "Mr Cogito on the Need for Preci-sion"—in the circumstances, rather an ominous title:
it's easy for children
just to add apple to apple
subtract grain from grain
the sum adds up
the world's kindergarten
pulses with safe warmth
One may take issue with the opening words—some don't find it easy at all—but the dismaying feature here is the sloppy "adds up," which is all too typical of Valles. The Carpenters negotiate the passage easily enough:
children are lucky
they add apple to apple
subtract grain from grain
the sum is correct
the kindergarten of the world
pulsates with a safe warmth.
In the hands of the Carpenters, we have seen that everything—be it an article or a tense or an "of"—can become an expressive resource deployed in Herbert's cause; with Valles, it's a potential liability. Reading her is an awful instruction in how even a great poet can be humbled by carelessness and thoughtlessness. She doesn't write even passably good English (and while you might be able to write a good poem by accident, I don't think you can make a good translation that way). She has such things as "the heel on the other hand" and "some time off/outside time." She uses "gingerly" (the care for oneself) as though it meant "carefully" (care for others), "convoluted" for "complicated," and "syringes" for "injections." She has "downstream" in a poem about the sea, and the baffling "royal apple" for "orb." Her formulations are not strange and provoking but muzzy and nonsensical: "lanky shoulders," "immeasurably regular rings," "the fury of mass murderers," "the true bride/of real men," "lacks all dimensions," "mundane/and slightly banal." Her writing is full of dreary prefabricated terms: "subjected to torture," "failed marriages," "riddle wrapped in a mystery," "quality poet," "mood swing." On occasional flights into a grander vocabulary, she makes a fool of herself: "indifferent plenitude" where the Carpenters—knowing or wisely sensing that Herbert demands a mixing of English and Latin—have "indifferent fullness," "Mr Cogito's Eschatological Premonitions" where they have "Eschatological Forebodings," "detritus of an epic" where they have "scraps of a poem." Valles's version of "Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks" ends (sounding rather like something from Star Wars): "I live in the undying hope that others will assume my task/and will bring a labor so boldly initiated to its completion"; "and bring the task so boldly begun to its end" is the Carpenters' version. Part of Herbert, it seems to me, is disdain for conventional poetic effects; as he puts it in "Mr Cogito and the Imagination" (in the Carpenters' version), "the piano at the top of the Alps/played false concerts for him." Such things are literally and punningly "phony." He shouldn't therefore come out sounding like Assonance 101: "laboratories of sorrow," "clumsy bumblebee," "irksome as eczema," "too shallow to swallow," "rebellion's/wellspring," "more diligent than able—docile stable," "step separately." There is no dignity in any of these, and there can be no dignity around them. How can a poem begin "In the life of Mr Cogito/illustrated supplements/were a vital supplement"? How can one end "with the terrible consciousness that life is momentous"? How can you have an "abbess" in a poem, and an "abyss" in the next line, which is also the last, and the poem not be terminally silly? How can you ask God for "ability" in one strophe and "agility" in the next? How can you have "cut" as a verb in one line and as a noun in the next: "a plain cut across by a red stone quarry/like a holiday cut of meat"? How can you praise God for his "fathomless goodness," and two lines later comment on the "unfathomable bellows" of a donkey's lungs without being a sort of atheistical pendant to Hopkins?
Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations. These things matter so much; it would be nice if they made a difference.